Elizabeth and Essex Critical Context - Essay

Lytton Strachey

Critical Context

In a discipline that often lacks flair and a sense of the melodramatic, Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex has enjoyed a popularity with audiences of all ages because it possesses those very qualities. The book reads as the public imagines biography ought to read: with excitement and emotion. It has a particular appeal to younger readers because the central narrative is not obscured by a wealth of data. The work is popular history in the best and the worst senses of that designation; the vividness of the narrative almost compensates for the lack of accuracy.

Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex has enjoyed such popularity because it is well written, but there is another reason for its inclusion in any study of early twentieth century biographies: It reveals much about Strachey himself and about the literary set to which he belonged. His Queen Victoria, first published in 1921, created a sensation by dismissing the late queen-empress as a symbol of an era of repressive prudery. While Strachey was not a particularly vocal misogynist, his disdain for women in positions of power is also strongly evident in Elizabeth and Essex. This rather subtle dismissal of female rulers provoked numerous scholarly responses in the decades after Strachey’s death, which bear examination by the serious young scholar. Of particular importance in this respect is Susan Bassnett’s Elizabeth I: A Feminist Perspective (1988).